Ed Koch has not been mayor of New York City for 22 years, yet he has never really gone away.
Since leaving City Hall, he has been a frequent political TV and radio commentator, columnist, author, film critic, and even the judge on The People’s Court for a time. He is also a partner at the law firm Bryan Cave LLP. I sat down with Koch at his Midtown office to discuss a number of topical issues ranging from Israel to the upcoming election to the significance of being a Jewish New Yorker. And most importantly, I had him give me the scoop on the best Chinese restaurant in Manhattan.
“[Israel] will attack Iran as a last resort to protect itself from being attacked by Iran with nuclear facilities,” Koch said when asked about the current Israel/Iran stalemate. “They’re going to do what is necessary to respond to the existential threat made by the president of Iran against them, that Iran’s intention is to destroy Israel… What is interesting to me is, there was a letter recently in The New York Times by some woman who said – and I’m paraphrasing – ‘How dare Israel complain about a nuclear bomb when it has a nuclear bomb.’ But it hasn’t threatened any country with destruction. And, in fact, there is a Muslim nuclear bomb – it’s in Pakistan. But Iran has specifically said that it will destroy Israel. What is Israel to do, just sit there and wait to be destroyed? I hope not. I hope also that the United States joins in the attack because Iran has also threatened the United States.”
Koch sees little difference between President Obama and Mitt Romney with respect to their platforms on Israel. “Both parties and both candidates are supportive of Israel,” says Koch. “I don’t think Israel is an issue in this coming election.”
When I asked Mayor Koch about his status as the GOP’s “favorite Democrat” for often crossing party lines, he responded by that it didn’t happen very often. “Maybe six times or something like that,” said Koch. “I did it with John Lindsay, I think, for the first time. I did it with George [W.] Bush when he ran for reelection. Each time there was a reason. I’m a good Democrat but…sometimes, as Jack Kennedy said, party [loyalty] demands too much.
“And in the case of John Lindsay, his opponent was [Mario] Procaccino. Nobody wanted Procaccino, the Democratic candidate. In the case of George Bush, I didn’t think John Kerry understood what terrorism is all about. I think he thought it was a matter of dealing with just criminals. That’s not what terrorism is. Terrorists seek the use of terrorism to obtain a political goal and it generally involves killing innocent people to achieve it. I didn’t think that Kerry understood that and I thought that George Bush did, and so I crossed party lines and I supported him. I have no regrets about it.”
The last time Koch endorsed a Republican was in last year’s special election to fill the seat of disgraced Brooklyn Congressman Anthony Weiner. “When Obama appeared to me [that he] did not understand what was happening in the Mideast as it related to Israel,” Koch said, “I supported a Republican Roman Catholic candidate [Bob Turner] against a Jewish candidate [Democrat David Weprin] in the Brooklyn district that had been represented by Anthony Weiner, and I’m very proud of the results. I mean, most people say it’s never been done before that one little guy like me, as The New York Times quoting an observer, asking him about that right after Turner won, the observer said, referring to me, ‘He’s 86, he’s out of office 21 years – it’s amazing!’ I’m very proud of that.” [The Jewish Voice made a similar splash in local media when it “crossed religious lines” to endorse Turner, whom our editorial board thought to be the better candidate.-ed.]
One year later, however, Koch now is supporting Obama. “I believe that he’s changed,” Koch said of Obama. “I believe that both candidates – Obama and Romney – have the same position basically on Israel and the Mideast and both parties, Democrat and Republican, they’re in the same ballpark. So it’s not an issue for me.”
What Koch does see as an issue is the reluctance of either party to take on those on Wall Street and in the banking and securities industries who engaged in criminal acts. “Can anyone defend the fact that [former New Jersey Governor Jon] Corzine is not going to be prosecuted? He can’t remember what happened to a billion five hundred million dollars that belonged to his clients that disappeared? But he’s only one of many. And while they fine them, that’s just the cost of doing business. I mean, they fine them three hundred fifty million dollars…they don’t care, these banks, because they’re bigger than they were before the great recession. Bigger! They have beggared America, they have raped America and they have caused middle-class families – and particularly retirees – to suffer enormously with a reduction in their income and ability to retire. So [both parties are] bad.”
Another area where Koch faults the Republicans and Democrats alike is the ongoing war in Afghanistan. “Both of them support our continuing to remain in Afghanistan where we’re suffering these deaths. Particularly outrageous are the deaths [that] occurred as a result of Afghanistan soldiers that we’re training killing American soldier trainers, and neither candidate seems to want to talk about that. Neither party wants to talk about it. I deplore it.”
Koch does, however, see a major distinction between the parties and says he is “overwhelmingly in support of Obama and the Democratic Party [because of the Republicans’] efforts to privatize social security and Medicare, and turn Medicaid into a block grant, to reduce food stamps for the poor – social issues, to bar abortion even for the health of the mother and incest and rape, no exclusions—that’s the Republican platform. And we can go through a whole host of others. So it is there where I am energized and I am going to Florida to be supportive of President Obama, who’s asked me to go there and [to] other battle states.”
There have been three mayors since Koch left office, and next year, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg unable to seek a fourth term due to term limits, a new mayor will be elected from a large field of mostly Democrats. “Well, I am supporting Christine [Quinn],” Koch said of the current City Council Speaker, who is viewed at the frontrunner. “Everybody’s worried about how strong she or anybody else will be when the municipal unions try to reassert their authority, which I take great pride in having deprived them of when I became mayor, and every mayor since me has stood up to the municipal unions, and hopefully whoever becomes mayor will do the same.”
As for the current mayor, Koch has been friends with Bloomberg for many years and agrees with him on the “nanny” issues many criticize him for. “I support the banning of large sodas for reasons he’s given,” Koch says, “which are that our children are obese, threatening the very length of their lives, aside from the enormous medical bills that come from diabetes.” When I asked Koch if this was an example of government intruding on our personal choices, he responded, “If it were simply a choice, then why don’t we penalize these people on insurance premiums if they’re fat or if they smoke? And we don’t. Maybe if we did that we don’t have then move to do other things.”
When Koch first ran for mayor in 1977, he spent $2 million on his campaign. With the seemingly limitless amount of money that now goes into virtually every campaign for elective office, Koch regrets that nothing is being done to curtail the dominance of money in the current political climate. “What bothers me more than anything else,” Koch laments, “is that there is no effort to support a constitutional amendment, which is the only way you can limit what the Supreme Court did on this issue of money. They said anybody can spend as much as they want if it’s their money. [Senator] Tom Udall (D-N.M.) introduced a constitutional amendment to limit how much you can give to a candidate and how much a candidate can spend. And there’s no discussion of it. There’s no effort even on the part apparently of Tom Udall to arouse the country and to get the support needed to get it passed by Congress and ultimately the fifty states. I’m outraged by the fact that nobody seems to care. We’re going to see, I’m told by The Times, as I read it, huge monies many times what Obama has available to him in the general campaign. The Republicans have saved their money for the general election. And now you’re going to see an enormous number of ads by the candidate and by the SuperPACs. It’s outrageous.”
Koch was born to a Conservative Jewish family in the Bronx and raised in Newark, New Jersey.
I asked him how his Judaism has influenced his worldview. “I am a secular Jew,” he said. “I believe in G-d, I believe in the hereafter, I believe in reward and punishment, and I expect to be rewarded. I have great respect for the world’s religions. I believe that because Jews are such a small number of people – 13 million in the whole world – that we have to reach out more than we’re reaching out in terms of allies, and our greatest potential ally – apparently they want to be our ally – are Catholics, and I don’t think we’re doing enough to reach out to them. I frankly am very distressed with Orthodox rabbis for not being more cooperative…with respect to reaching out to Catholics. And I’ve had an enormously good relationship with the Catholic Church here in New York. One of my very good friends was John Cardinal O’Connor, with whom I wrote a book… I’ve had a good relationship with every Cardinal before him, Cardinal Cooke and the Cardinals following him… I would hope that Jews and Catholics would understand that they have a bond – as John Paul II said, ‘Jews are the elder brother.’ That’s how he referred to them.”
When you think of a quintessential New Yorker, Ed Koch’s name always comes up. There are maybe a handful of others who fit the description – Robert DeNiro, Woody Allen, Rudy Giuliani, Regis Philbin – but Koch seems to embody everything that being a Manhattanite is. He famously got into trouble when he said, while running for governor in 1982, that suburbia was “sterile” and he did not like the notion of having to live in “the small town of” Albany. This was thought to alienate many voters outside of New York City.
So being one of the world’s most famous Jewish New Yorkers, there was one pivotal question I had to ask the former mayor – what is the best Chinese restaurant in town? “I like the Peking Duck at 28 Mott Street,” he said. “The one thing that amazed me once, I went to a kosher [Chinese] restaurant, taken by some people who were kosher, and they said, ‘Oh, you’re going to love this stuff.’ They did the impossible – they dried out a duck! It’s not possible, I thought, to eliminate the tasty fat content. They did!”
[Editor’s note: We at the Jewish Voice do not endorse the consumption of non-kosher food by our Jewish readers, even if recommended by New York’s favorite former mayor. For some excellent kosher dining options, be sure to check out our Kashrut/Dining Guide pages.]